Trust in civil society high but lower among underserved, survey finds

Trust in civil society high but lower among underserved, survey finds

A majority of Americans say they have confidence in the ability of nonprofit organizations (81 percent) and philanthropy (68 percent) to strengthen society, but only 47 percent believe the sector is headed in the right direction, a report from Independent Sector finds.

Based on an online survey of three thousand adults conducted in partnership with Edelman Intelligence, the report, Trust in Civil Society: Understanding the factors driving trust in nonprofits and philanthropy (32 pages, PDF), found that 59 percent of respondents trusted nonprofits "to do what is right" and 36 percent trusted philanthropy to do so. Those respondents who did not trust nonprofits (12 percent) or philanthropy (21 percent ) — citing perceptions of a lack of financial transparency, ulterior or less than altruistic motives, and associations with scandal or greed — were more likely than others to live in underserved and/or rural communities, have lower educational attainment and a household income of under $35,000, be less politically engaged, and be less familiar with the philanthropic sector. In addition, rural respondents (23 percent) were more likely than suburban (21 percent) or urban (17 percent) respondents to say they trusted nonprofits less today than they did ten years ago.

At the same time, the survey found that 47 percent of Latinx respondents, 41 percent of African Americans, 38 percent of Asian Americans, and 31 percent of white respondents, as well as 49 percent of Gen Z respondents and 42 percent of millennials, said they trusted nonprofits more today than they did ten years ago, and that higher levels of trust were linked to more giving and volunteering, while positive engagement with nonprofits appeared to reinforce that trust. The survey also found that 43 percent of respondents saw helping the less fortunate as the role nonprofits should play in strengthening society, followed by being effective advocates for change (15 percent) and leading by example (9 percent).

According to the report, the most important factor in building trust and credibility with the public — and securing the sector's future — is clarity of purpose, or mission, followed by integrity, ability, and dependability. Having a mission that addresses "a clear need," maintaining a local presence, demonstrating impact, and being accountable to stakeholders were among the top factors that respondents said influenced their level of trust in a nonprofit.

"Public trust is the currency of the nonprofit sector. These findings help us better understand public perception, which is critical to the sustainability and impact of nonprofits," said Independent Sector president and CEO Daniel J. Cardinali. "Most importantly, these findings enable the sector to identify strategies to help us deepen levels of trust moving forward, especially in light of our collective efforts to recover from COVID-19 and the resulting economic crisis, and address inequity and racial injustice."

"Trust in Civil Society: Understanding the factors driving trust in nonprofits and philanthropy." Independent Sector report 06/24/2020. "Trust in Civil Society." Independent Sector resource page 06/24/2020. "Independent Sector Launches New Report on Trust in Civil Society." Independent Sector press release 06/24/2020.